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PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: memory and identity; relationships; ethics

CHARACTERS: Joel (Jim Carrey), Clementine (Kate Winslet), Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (founder of Lacuna, memory-erasure clinic), Mary (Kirsten Dunst, receptionist and lover of Dr. Mierzwiak), Stan (technician at Lacuna), Patrick (technician at Lacuna), Rob and Carrie (Joel’s friends), Naomi (Joel’s ex-fiancée)

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR MICHEL GONDRY: Human Nature (2001), Block Party (2005)

SYNOPSIS: The screenplay for this film was written by Charlie Kaufman the offbeat author of other philosophically provocative films, especially Being John Malkovich. Eternal Sunshine is a nonlinear movie that tracks in reverse the relationship of Joel, a guarded and sensitive man, and Clementine, a colorful and impulsive woman. The movie begins when Joel and Clementine meet again (unknowingly) after having literally erased each other from memory, using the services of Dr. Mierzwiak at Lacuna, Inc. The movie then jumps backward a few days to the traumatic scene of Joel’s discovery that Clementine, after a nasty fight, impulsively decides to have Joel erased from her memory. In order to stop his suffering, Joel decides also to have his memory of Clementine erased. Much of the rest of the movie takes place in Joel’s head as his memories of Clementine are eradicated from their most recent fight to their first meeting at a party. Naturally, the first memories we see are painful and bitter at the final stages of the relationship, but as the memories recess farther back, Joel realizes he doesn’t want to lose the blissful memories of their beginnings. Unfortunately, since he is actually asleep during the procedure, he is unable to communicate his desire to stop it, and eventually, all of his memories of her are erased. Meanwhile, we discover that Dr. Mierzwiak has had an affair with his receptionist Mary, and she subsequently had a memory-erasure to forget it. When on the night of Joel’s procedure, Dr. Mierzwiak’s wife catches him cheating with her again, Mary learns from his wife that she had the memory-erasing procedure done. Upset, Mary retaliates by mailing all of Lacuna’s clients the proof of their procedures, which includes recorded justifications by each client for having had it done. The climax of the movie occurs when, back in the present, Joel and Clementine both discover their tapes in the mail, and listen to them, painfully, in each other’s presence. In the final scene they decide, in spite of the hurtful things said about each other, to give the relationship a chance.


1. The title of the movie derives from the following passage in the poem Eloisa to Abelard, by Alexander Pope:

How happy is the blameless Vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot;
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d.

Why was this title chosen for this movie?

2. John Locke, in one of the first modern accountings of consciousness and identity, argued that personal identity is defined not by the physical body or the “soul”, but by repeated self-identification. Thus, according to Locke, memory is an integral aspect of the self. Are Clementine and Joel different people after they have their memories erased? In other words, have their identities changed in some meaningful way?

3. Does this movie help confirm or deny Locke’s thesis?

4. Consider that elective plastic surgery might be a real-life analogue to the memory-erasing procedure. On the American TV show “Extreme Makeover”, people are given plastic surgery as part of a radical image upgrade. Do these peoples’ identities change in any meaningful way?

5. Does your answer to the previous question help confirm or deny Locke’s idea of identity?

6. In a compelling final scene, Joel and Clementine listen to tapes of each other justifying why they chose to erase each other from memory. If on a first date with someone, you could hear a tape of yourself in describing what it’s like to be in a long-term relationship with that person, would you choose to listen to it?

7. Which is better: Joel’s dysfunctional but emotionally comfortable relationship with his ex-fiancée Naomi, or his dysfunctional and turbulent relationship with Clementine? Why?

8. Is your answer specific to Joel, or does it apply to relationships in general?

9. Ignoring financial aspects, was it a breach of ethics for Mary to mail all of Lacuna’s clients their files and recorded tapes?

10. Suppose a former client of Lacuna demanded to know whether the procedure had been done: which is more important, the wishes of someone before they had the procedure done, or their wishes after?

11. Was Joel’s friend Rob acting in Joel’s best interest when he revealed that Clementine had Joel erased from her memory? Why or why not?

12. Why did Rob’s wife Carrie disagree with Rob’s decision to reveal this?

13. It’s easy to see Dr. Mierzwiak’s indiscretions with Mary as unethical. However, Dr. Mierzwiak’s wife confers on him an additional layer of guilt when she realizes that he didn’t tell Mary about their first affair. Why is this worse than if he had told Mary?

14. How could Dr. Mierzwiak have told her without rendering meaningless the erasure of her memory of their first affair?

15. Can you imagine a situation in which memory erasure is completely justified?

16. Is there value in suffering, even extreme suffering?

Author: Terren Suydam
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